You’re Doing It Wrong: Applying Sunscreen

Sable Yong
Getty Images / Jamie Grill

Getty Images / Jamie Grill

Now that we are of the age when out mothers don’t chase us around the pool, slapping goopy sunscreen all over our bodies as we wriggle away, it’s up to us to ward off cancerous UV rays. That said, it’s not like you can apply sunscreen like you would body lotion, willy-nilly and be done with it. The only way to really be protected is to actually cover all your exposed skin, and you’re probably missing some small, unassuming areas, making them a perfect landing ground for UVA/UVB damage. Here are some key sunscreen mistakes you may be making.

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Know how it works. SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” to the surprise of no one. What the numbers mean to you, individually, requires a bit of multiplication and personal know-how. Basically, think of how long it takes you to burn in the sun without any sunscreen. Now add SPF 15, and you can stay in the sun 15 times that amount of time without burning. SPF 30 allows you to be in the sun 30 times longer, and so on. So more SPF doesn’t mean it’s more powerful, it just means that it lasts longer.

Know the enemy. Keep in mind that SPF only protects you from UVB rays, not UVA (there isn’t actually a measure of protection against UVA rays). UVB rays are the ones that cause physical sun burns. UVA rays are the ones that damage your skin and can lead to melanoma. Keep an eye out for “broad spectrum” sunscreens, which cover both.

Think of your body as a solar panel. All of the raised planes tilted skywards that have no shadow interference are where you’ll catch the most rays. Places like the bridge of your nose, ear lobes, your forehead and scalp, décolletage, tops of feet, shoulders—those places get the most direct sunlight and need ample coverage. It may feel weird rubbing sunscreen on your ear lobes or along your hairline, but it’s less weird than getting a painful burn in a delicate area. Speaking from experience there.

Cover your hands. Your hands are the one thing that’s always exposed in the warmer months, and they need protection, too. Constant hand-washing will remove any sunscreen on there that you’ve applied to your body, as well as getting them wet or toweling off. Keep a hand cream with SPF on you, like Deborah Lippmann’s Rich Girl Hand Cream with SPF 25, and reapply after washing hands. Not only will you always have soft hydrated hands, they won’t make you look older than you are in the future.

Waterproof doesn’t mean invincible. Sunscreen isn’t really a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. Sunscreen products that say “water resistant” or “waterproof” are not technically lying, but it’s up to you to know that it’s only resistant to water—not toweling off, not sand rubbing it off, not soap. After you go swimming, unless you just step out of the water and don’t let anything touch your body, you are removing your sunscreen when you towel off. When you rub water out of your eyes and off your face as you are swimming, you’re removing your sunscreen. Don’t be shy with the reapplication.

Time Your Protection. If you’re applying sunscreen when you’re already on the beach, you’re already exposed to UV damage. Most sunscreens have a combo of physical and chemical UV blockers, meaning that some of them sit on top of your skin and manually block the sun’s rays (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are physical sunscreens) and some of them need to take some time to absorb into your skin to block UV rays—about 10-15 minutes. When you take into account how a bottle of sunscreen expires pretty much after one full seasonal use, don’t feel like you need to be stingy to make the whole bottle last the year. You should buy a new bottle every summer. Even if the expiration date says it’s good for longer than a year, when you bring it with you to the beach and let it roast in your bag, in the car, or just out in the open, sun and heat break down the chemicals that block UV rays. Over time, the potency diminishes.

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